Denise Blair became the founder and executive director of the Calgary Youth Justice Society (CYJS) in 1998 but much happened before she was able to receive that title.
Blair was born and raised in Saskatoon. She eventually moved to Calgary and went to Mount Royal University — which was college at the time — to get her certificate in criminal justice.
She then graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Criminology but her plans changed along with her interests.
“I got to know more about the role of law enforcement [and] I think it just didn't feel like it was right for me anymore,” Blair says.
“I wasn't sure I wanted to be out on the street and wasn't too keen on carrying a gun. I probably just killed my dreams there,” she continues.
After living in Ottawa for several years, Blair came back to Calgary and started working at the John Howard Society, a non-profit crime reduction organization based in Calgary.
Years ago, during that time, she had a chance to reconnect with one of her old professors who was working for the Youth Justice Committee.
Blair worked with the committees, which aims to help vulnerable youth, for 18 months. The committee was hoping to establish a centre in Calgary because of the lack of services offered to young people in the city.
In 1998, the CYJS was established — an organization which, according to the website, “connect[s] adult volunteers in a positive way with young people who are at risk of or have involvement with the criminal justice system.”
Youth Justice Committee is one of the programs offered by the Society and is an alternative to court for young offenders.
“Youth Justice Committee volunteers help young people move through and past a minor offence by holding them accountable without holding them back,” states the website.
Not long after, in that same year, Blair officially became the executive director of CYJS.
Reflecting back on that time, Blair says, “I remember driving my daughter to kindergarten… she said from the backseat, ‘Mommy, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ And I said, ‘Well, I'm kind of already grown up,' and she was quiet for a minute and says, ‘What are you?’”
For Blair, being the executive director of the CYJS means having a lot of roles to fill. She says she had to be able to do a little bit of everything.
While working with CYJS, Blair was looking for a way to expand her education in a way that could help her get a better understanding of the Society. She applied to Athabasca University for a master’s degree in business administration.
The most difficult problem for her was finding a way to pay her tuition.
“I did not know quite how I would pull it off...when the tuition was almost my annual salary,” she explains.
Blair ended up receiving the Leaders in Community Service scholarship from Athabasca University which covered all of her university expenses. The scholarship is provided by a donor to a non-profit leader.
It was in one of her MBA marketing classes that she came up with the idea for a marketing plan that would engage corporate funders.
That was when the idea to create programs to help youth at risk of committing criminal activities came up.
The Youth Justice Committee had never created a program that would prevent youths from committing criminal offences. Most programs were given to youth that had already previously violated the law.
“So, it just seemed a little bit like, 'how do I get my kid into this program?' Well, the first thing you have to do is go and commit a crime … so probably not, you know, great for all youth,” she says.
Putting Blair’s idea to work was harder than she originally thought due to the lack of funding.
Blair was not sure if she was going to continue with the amount of money and time she had to spend on this new project but her dedication kept her going.
“I can give up on me and my idea but I can't give up on the young people that are out there waiting for their opportunity to shine. I cannot give up on them,” says Blair.
The society came up with different programs, such as In The Lead, which is meant to strengthen youth in the city who struggle with their natural leadership abilities.
Jill Mallett runs the In The Lead program and has worked with Blair for almost five years.
Mallett admires Blair’s dedication and support, saying, “She just really believes that the youth deserve more. She really believes in supporting youth to the best version of themselves and I think that is what keeps her here.”
Blair agrees that she has found her dream job.
“I love what I do,” Blair says. “I love the organization that we've built here — for now, we're continuing to make that bigger difference.”
Many years in later, her goals are still the same: giving youth a sense of belonging.
Not sure where the future will lead her, Blair and her team continue to move the organization forward and hope for the best for Calgary’s future generations.
A previous version of this story contained incorrect information about the date the CYJS was founded and the name of the scholarship. We apologize for the error.
- By Emmanuella Kondo